When I was a student at the University of Oregon in 1967, I talked my way onto Governor George Wallace’s campaign plane and spent several days with the presidential candidate as he flew across the West giving speeches. At the time the media were portraying the Alabama governor as little more than a crude racist redneck. But it was not just racism that drew the tens of thousands who came to hear him. He was playing to the anger and disenchantment of the white working class. These men and women believed their shot at the American dream was ending, their lives manipulated by a remote power elite and an uncaring government.
I wrote an article about what I had observed for The New Republic, and that led to my career as a journalist. Five decades later I returned to write about George Wallace again in my new book, The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Destroyed the Klan.
Wallace was a brilliant politician, and what strikes me are certain parallels between his politics of those of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Wallace is a crucial character in The Lynching. He created the climate of hate that led to the lynching of 19-year-old Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama in 1981 that is at the center of my book. I interviewed Wallace’s daughter and son and various aides and learned far more about him than I did in 1967.
As a young Alabama politician in the mid ’50s, Judge George Wallace knew that segregation was going to end. He might have taken that knowledge and used it to lead the South in accepting that new reality. It would not have been easy, but he might have become an American version of F.W. de Klerk, the South African politician who working with Nelson Mandela ended apartheid in South Africa.
Wallace chose a different route. He had an understanding of the psychology of the southern white working class like no other politician of his time, and he knew they would not give in easily to an integrated South. If he became their champion, he could become governor and perhaps rise even higher in American politics. It was a profoundly cynical thing to do, disrespectful not only of the American Constitution but of these people themselves, whom he was leading in a direction he knew was wrongheaded and misguided and would fail, but it was the quickest and easy way to power.
Like Wallace, Trump has called forth issues that excite and inspire the beleaguered white working and lower middle class. Unlike Wallace, he did not grow up among them, but he can speak their language like no other politician of our time.
When Trump first announced for president, he needed issues so radical, so daring that they would bring him enormous media attention. Like Wallace, he set out proffering policies that I believe he knows will never be implemented. It would be impossible to deport 11 million undocumented workers, but it’s a brilliant issue that he used to help the New York businessman become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The same goes for his idea of not allowing Muslims for a time to enter the United States. It plays well with his most fervent supporters, but it’s unthinkable that Congress would go along with such a scheme.
Wallace provoked violence in the South. His rhetoric inspired some of the worst excesses of the Klan, including the murder of four black girls in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. On his presidential campaign jaunts to the North, there was always the threat of violence with protesters being throttled or mocked.
Early on in the primary season, I thought that Trump was going to do just the same, provoking demonstrators in such a way that could have easily led to violence. But as the magnitude of these confrontations became apparent, the candidate has backed off from using the provocative language that easily could have stimulated violence.
Wallace entered politics as a populist defender of the working man, promising as governor to advance the masses of the people as no previous Alabama politician had ever done. He had the potential to be for his people a true and honest spokesman working to advance them and the South. In the end, he was the most reactionary governor of his time, doing almost nothing for the workingman and workingwoman while continuing to boast of his ceaseless efforts and serving the interests of the business elite.
The common people of this country have been suckered again and again, and it is no wonder that they are ready to rise in fury. They were suckered by the Democratic Party that stood back and did almost nothing as factories closed all across America, and the plutocrats benefited overwhelmingly from free trade. Out of despair many of these lifelong Democrats migrated to the Republican Party. There they were suckered again by politicians who offered them nothing but meaningless words and bromides. Now in great numbers they have moved on to Trump.
By the mark of the primary votes for Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Trump, two-thirds of Americans are looking for some version of radical change. The Trump candidacy is likely to be the one vehicle for that change.
Wallace was an astute politician with great insight into his political life and a man of enormous potential. To my mind, he is a tragic figure. In his last term in office, when he knew he would never run for president again, he became reflective. As I write in The Lynching, one evening his aide Kenneth Mullinax was talking to Wallace in the governor’s mansion.
“I have a lot of regrets,” Wallace said, “and I really worry about my soul.”
“But you’re born again, Governor,” Mullinax said.
“I flew all them runs over Tokyo dropping bombs, but that don’t worry me none. It’s my words. They kilt a lot of people. That’s why I’m worried I’m going to hell.”
Wallace had become a deeply believing Christian, and he truly feared he would go to hell. If one believes in heaven and hell, Wallace was certainly a likely candidate for hell.
Trump is far away from such a regretful moment. So far he has not for the most part been facing the great issues confronting our country with meaningful policy proposals. Trump is about himself. He has squandered much of his time running a self-involved, self-referential campaign that is little more than an endless advertisement for the Trump brand.
Watching Trump campaigning, I keep wondering if he loses will he have a moment of self-awareness and realize how profoundly he blew one of the most extraordinary political opportunities in our history? Like Wallace, will he live the rest of his life in regret?
Laurence Leamer is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including The Kennedy Women and The Price of Justice. His latest, The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan, is published by William Morrow.